See You Next Tuesday

Decorative Gourd seasonThere’s been some discussion today about a new app called Clean Reader, which will allow you to read your favorite ebooks with the profanity edited out. Not surprisingly, some authors are vehemently against the idea, seeing it as, at best, censorship of their work, and at worst, unlawful editing of a copyrighted text. Others point out that the app doesn’t actually change the text in any way; it simply blanks out the offending word, and the app user has the choice to read the uncensored book if they want. The Clean Reader blog says that customers, having paid for a book, should be allowed to consume it however they want.

It reminds me of the controversy a few years back when an Alabama publishing company decided to replace the n-word with ‘slave’ in their reprint of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The publishing company argued that some people can’t get past the word in order to grapple with the actual issues of the story, and their edition allowed more schools to add the books to their summer reading lists. Critics pointed out that making the book more palatable was missing the point. Pretending people didn’t use that word meant ignoring the very reason the word is considered harmful today.

It’s twee to say that good writers don’t need to use profanity, or that clean writing is quality writing. Authors use words for specific effects, and the words people use can tell a lot about character and setting and class. Anyone who has seen movies edited for television can understand the comical effect that the sanitized language can have on a story. Words are tools to be used, and there are some effects that can only be achieved with the use of profanity.

On the other hand, I can see good reason why people should be allowed to convert the media they consume into a more accessible format. Many video games have colorblind mode for gamers who wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the default colors of the game. Visually impaired movie viewers can watch movies with audio description tracks that sometimes change dialogue. Abridging stories for audiobook is a common practice. Publishers translate books into other languages to make them available to larger audiences. The Harry Potter series was edited to make it less British for American readers.

A dislike of profanity doesn’t exactly constitute a disability, but I can appreciate that some people have a far greater distaste for dirty words than I do. If they prefer to read bowdlerized versions of their favorite books, even knowing that the edited content might be inferior or even incomprehensible, then that’s their choice. Perhaps Clean Reader should allow authors to opt out of having their text available, and let readers read the rest however they like.

Further reading:
Joanne Harris’s post, “An Email from Clean Reader
Chuck Wendig’s post, “Fuck You, Clean Reader: Authorial Consent Matters

Talent is a myth

A mid winter walk through the woods.

A mid winter walk through the woods.

Late last week, an article on The Stranger made the rounds on Twitter, shared among furious writers of all kinds. The article, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” purported to have advice for aspiring writers, by a former professor who had seen it all.

It wasn’t great advice. The very first tip said that writers are born with talent, and the odds were that you don’t have it. It went on to say that if you didn’t start writing as a teenager, it was too late now. If you don’t read the hardest, densest prose you can get your hands on, you’re a failure, and—in a very weird paragraph—if you write a shitty memoir about being abused as a child, the author wishes you’d been abused even worse as punishment for your crimes against language. No, seriously, he says that.

Chuck Wendig responded to the article with a couple posts. The first, “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about right now.

When I was in school, I was a quick learner. I happened to be the kind of person who did very well in structured learning environments. That, paired with a terror of getting in trouble, meant that I did all my homework and read all the assigned textbooks and got straight As. I was good at school, and I got a reputation for being the smart kid.

Because of that, whenever I did something well, like write a short story I was proud of, kids would roll their eyes and say “Yeah but that’s just because you’re talented.” All that hard work I’d done on it? Yeah, no one cared. When they called me talented, even though they meant well, it was an insult. ‘Talent’ meant that the story was worth nothing, because I could have mashed my face against the keyboard and it would have been good.

So I’m going to call bullshit on the whole idea of talent right here. People do well at things because they work at them. I think the author of the original article had the wrong idea when he faced his students. He thought writers were born with talent, and the best writers he saw were ones who had started in their teens, yet he never made the connection that the ones who started writing in their teens had worked at their craft longer than the ones that started later.

Maybe you’re better at grammar because you read a lot as a child. Maybe you have a talent for dialogue because you watch a lot of movies. Maybe you’re a great artist because you enjoy sketching and people learn better when they’re having fun doing it. Those strengths didn’t spring from a vacuum. You have them because you worked for them, and the exciting thing about that is that you can develop any skill you want if you keep trying. ‘Talent’ is a myth. Start appreciating the hard work behind it.